In October 2009, a battalion of soldiers from Britain’s Coldstream Guards was deployed to the Helmand Province of Afghanistan to launch an offensive with U.S. and NATO forces against the Taliban. Among them was Private Glenn Hockton, an 18-year-old from the Essex region northeast of London. He was responsible for loading shells into mortars.
Afghanistan was, of course, a war zone, which meant that its soil was peppered with land mines. At the time that Hockton was on his tour of duty, the British military could have used any number of techniques to sniff out and destroy mines before its soldiers came across them. Some armies used heavy-duty remote-controlled bulldozers, others used helicopters with high-tech rakes, while still others experimented with spraying a special bacteria on the ground that lights up when it comes in contact with TNT.
Any of these techniques might have prevented Hockton from trudging across a mine-infested Afghan field one day with five fellow soldiers. But he had no such luck. As he walked through this field that day, Hockton had a sensation on his back and instantly felt something that had been around his neck fall to the ground. When he stopped to pick it up, he realized he’d just stepped on an improvised explosive device; if he stepped off it, he’d be blown to bits. He called to his comrades, who rushed back and—over the course of the next 45 minutes—worked to disarm the mine as Hockton just stood there.
It worked. To the battalion’s relief, Hockton was freed without losing so much as a fingernail. When he returned from Afghanistan months later to be reunited with his family in England, Hockton told the story of how his life had been spared not by infrared technology or metal detectors or de-mining radars, but by that thing that fell from his neck at the right time. That thing was a Rosary.
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One of the most peculiar things about the Rosary is how often it is associated with war.
In 1573, Pope Pius V declared October 7th the feast of Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the momentous naval battle two years earlier in which an army of Christian soldiers—heavily outnumbered—defeated an advancing Ottoman fleet after the whole of Christendom had dropped to its knees, prayed the Rosary, and asked the Blessed Mother to intervene. The Feast of Our Lady of Victory later became the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary.
It was in the midst of World War I, in fact, when the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal as “Our Lady of the Rosary.” Over the course of six months in 1917, she exhorted them to pray the Rosary every day to end the violence ravaging Europe. It was then, too, that she warned them that a worse war would break out if people did not “cease offending God.” She singled out Russia, saying, “If my requests [to turn to God] are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church.” History tells us how that went.
The Rosary: A sword and shield
So often, when the saints describe this simple set of 59 beads, it is not as something charming or soft but as a weapon. A sword. A shield.
“The rosary is the scourge of the Devil,” said Saint Adrian VI.
Saint Padre Pio, who was ill in bed one day, asked his colleagues to fetch him his Rosary by commanding, “Get me my weapon!”
Pope Blessed Pius IX: “Give me an army saying the rosary,” he once said, “and I will conquer the world.”
Weapons and conquest, of course, imply that there’s something to be conquered, that we are at war, that we need a weapon in the first place. And we do.
Today we fight wars daily—physical, emotional, psychological—but all of them spiritual.
Go to the cancer ward of St. Jude’s Hospital. Go to the unemployment lines in Detroit. Go to the dark rooms of the bullied teenager, the meth user, the porn addict. Go, as Glenn Hockton did, to the front lines of Afghanistan. Go to any of these places, look around, and ask: We’re not at war?
Victory over evil requires help beyond this physical world
If we are indeed in battle against the forces of disease, addiction, and despair, then perhaps the Blessed Virgin and the saints were on to something when they said that the only thing strong enough to defeat this was something that transcends the material world.
It needs to be something spiritual, a weapon whose very power lies n the acknowledgement that ours is a broken world—“pray for us sinners now”—and God alone can fix it. The Rosary is an admission that man-made weapons have all the power of a pencil in a swordfight.
In a beautiful paradox of our Christian faith, the Blessed Mother says that the most powerful thing we can do to change our world for the better is to imagine the myteries of Jesus’s life over and over again—His conception, His birth, His scourging, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, the crowning of His Mother—and to ask for Mary’s intercession throughout. That’s the essence of the Rosary: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…
In other words, to win the greatest battles of our lives, to rise above the filth and suffering, to dominate sin and death and despair, we have to first fall to our knees.
Yet this is admittedly hard to believe. Repetitive utterings are going to end wars? Restore the sick to health? Bring peace to the home? How can a series of Hail Marys from some random nun in Croatia, a schoolgirl in St. Louis, or a farmer in Brazil have the power to change the course of history? It’s just words, after all. Right?
It depends on whom you trust.
If you believe that something is only worth doing if you have tested it scientifically and proven its power empirically, the Rosary is a tough sell. “What is the mechanism of its power?” you might demand. “How does it work? Wouldn’t we be better off spending our time doing something that more directly and obviously effects change?” That’s one way.
But if you believe that the Son of God was born of a teenage girl in modern-day Israel two thousands years ago, that she carried Him, fed Him, clothed Him, saw His first steps, taught Him how to speak, raised Him, and then stood by Him as he was unjustly condemned, whipped, pierced, spat on, laughed at, and murdered—if you believe she did all of this without once losing faith in God, then ask yourself this: When we ask for her advocacy in prayer—that is, when she goes before her Son and intercedes for us…you don’t think He listens to her?
When she asks us to do something, you don’t think we should do it? If she tells us the Rosary is the greatest weapon on earth, you don’t believe her? If you believe that the true driving force of history is the human heart, then suddenly a prayer that centers the heart on God doesn’t seem so powerless, after all.
That is the paradox of the Rosary.
The most powerful way of changing the world is not through the intercession of physicists or philosophers or economists or presidents or meteorologists or armies but a first-century Jewish mother.
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October 13, 2012 marks 95 years since the last apparition of Our Lady of Fatima, whose message rings as true today as it did in the throes of World War I.
If you want peace in your world, peace in your nations, peace in your families, and peace in your hearts…then get on your knees and say the Rosary.
Sister Lucia, one of the three children in Fatima to whom the Blessed Mother appeared, said, “There is no problem, no matter how difficult it is, whether temporal or above all, spiritual, in the personal life of each one of us, of our families, of the families of the world, or of the religious communities, or even of the life of peoples and nations that cannot be solved by the Rosary.”
An upcoming election, a faltering marriage, addiction to cigarettes, the threat of terrorism, fear of flying, loneliness, financial trouble, or cancer—none of these cannot be solved through the power of the Rosary.
If we want to conquer the evil that lies before us—these bombs lurking at our feet—then we might remember as Glenn Hockton did that no weapon is more powerful than the love of a mother for her child.